Scientists Explain Why People Learn More When They're Emotional

Orlando motivational speaker and keynote speaker, Kostya Kimlat, reinforces learning by eliciting emotions from his audience.

Scientists at NYU have proven what magicians naturally discover after performing a few shows—that laughter, surprise and joy create positive emotions that make occasions extra-memorable. Or in more academic terms, the researchers concluded that, “emotional brain states carry over and enhance future memory formation.”

These scientists from NYU's Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science explain that "non-emotional experiences that followed emotional ones were also better remembered on a later memory test."

This explains why the lessons I teach business groups are recalled so well when I return to those same groups, the following year. Because I start the meeting off with unexpected actions, phrases and ideas, I kick the audience into “an emotional brain state.”


By getting them more excited, they pay more attention and retain more information. It’s just like a great teacher that captures the attention of the class with a striking question. Or how Franz Kafka pulls you into the story with an intriguing first sentence.

One morning, Gregor Samsa awoke to find he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.
The Metamorphisis, Franz Kafka

According to the NYU researchers, when we get emotional, our memories for that time period are sharpened. Once our emotional response is lit, we are still engaged up to 30 minutes afterwards.

Whereas during a traumatic event, we may experience tunnel vision and focus in on only one thing, during positive emotional events, we tend to take in more information about our periphery and are more likely to remember the additional information.

For my audiences, magic is that positive emotional event. When I present my business workshops and keynotes, magic is a small part of the program. (Out of an hour, about 10-15 minutes will be strictly for magic.) But there’s a very particular reason the magic is there, peppered throughout the whole talk.

Magic keeps people engaged and tuned in. No one in my audience is looking at their phones.

When you’re on stage, they sit at the edge of their seats. They’re afraid if they look away they’ll miss a moment of magic.
— An e-mail from a recent client

And now, I have the scientific proof to show that not only does the emotionally stimulating magic help to keep their attention during a business meeting, more importantly, the state of mind that their mind is in has a direct influence on how they continue to take in and process what happens in the immediate future. The magic primes them for optimal learning. 

"Emotion is a state of mind," said Dr. Lila Davachi, senior author of the study. "These findings make clear that our cognition is highly influenced by preceding experiences and, specifically, that emotional brain states can persist for long periods of time."

As a speaker and professional magician, I use magic to engage my audience. So how can you create positive emotional experiences at your next meeting if you don't know sleight of hand?   

The “Always Be Closing” scene from David Mamet’s 1992 indie film, Glengarry Glen Ross, is a theatrical example of an emotionally stimulating way to start your meeting. It'll certainly get their attention. 

As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.
— Blake in Glengarry Glenn Ross

Hopefully this is not the way your management is motivating your employees. Remember, the key is to create a positive emotional experience to enhance recall.

Open up your next meeting with a powerful image, a thought-provoking quote, or an engaging story. Do something delightful and unexpected. Acknowledge your audience, show them you are present. Fascinate them with something fresh and exciting; capture their attention; get them to sit up and take notice. Create something, wear something, sing something they won't expect. 

At the start of your next meeting, forego the ordinary, embrace the magical. Conjure up an emotionally enhanced experience, and you’ll ensure everything else you do and say will be remembered. 

Think Like a Magician.™ 

Read More:

Jennifer M. Talarico, Dorthe Berntsen, and David C. Rubin, “POSITIVE EMOTIONS ENHANCE RECALL OF PERIPHERAL DETAILS,” Cognitive and Emotion 23, no. 2 (2009), accessed January 8, 2017.

Arielle Tambini, “Emotional Brain States Carry over and Enhance Future Memory Formation,” Nature Neuroscience December 26, 2016, accessed January 8, 2017, doi:10.1038/nn.4468.

“Is There Such a Thing as an Emotional Hangover? NYU Researchers Find That There Is,” NYU News, December 31, 2016, accessed January 8, 2017.

You Might Be Better at Remembering Things When You Least Expect It,” Business Insider, January 5, 2017, accessed January 8, 2017.